Stolen Time

Every noon as the clock hands arrive at twelve, / I want to tie the two arms together, / And walk out of the bank carrying time in bags. 
Robert Bly, poet (b. 23 Dec 1926)

Lovely quote by Robert Bly. What about the 31st of December at the end of the decade? I'd love to nail the two hands together in a few days and walk out with a whole decade.

Medieval Music of Guillaume Machaut

This week's composer on Spotify is the incomparable Guillaume Machaut. Will be posting as the week goes along.

Winter Reading

It's begun to snow again. Old King Winter was teasing us with the warmer weather of 50 and 60 F. The warm sunny evenings with a slight nip in the air made us all feel that spring was here. Even the crocuses and snowdrops reared their green fingers through the ground and seemed to agree with that sentiment.  Yesterday, it rained and temperatures began to drop. The rain turned to sleet, and sleet turned to snow, and it now lays thick in many inches. It's still winter. We were mistaken.

To make most of this weather I have an eclectic mix of books lined up. I'm making a concerted effort of ploughing through them as if they were snow drifts in the driveway. A mountain of books. 

Running, history, science, markets, criticism, self-help, a memoir, and a classic: a fair and balanced diet. I still have a couple more that I made a note of in San Francisco bookstore last month. As usual, my eyes are bigger than my stomach - the voraciousness in my mind is far larger than the appetite time will really allow. I could spend any length of time in a bookstore and one hopes that they still exist and libraries still carry books in the future. A recent move has been to get rid of 'the damned books' and reclaim the space in libraries. I find it amazing to see some homes have no books at all. I believe that they have lots of space now. 

At this point of time, most of us still have books with pages that you can turn and your fingers can still feel the slight bump of the printed word. Perhaps, it's like an early autumn for books. Some leaves have fallen, but not all. Some branches are bare, but not all. 

And outside it is winter. 

O Pato - Duck three ways

This song has been like an earworm for the last few days. What's there not to like in a song where a duck, a goose, and a swan dance the samba? Serving up this song by Jayme Silva & Neuza Teixeira in three ways that are remarkably different, but still fun. They remind me of summer.

Apparently, in Portuguese ducks  go "quém, quém". That animal call alone serves up the differences in the three approaches to this nursery-rhyme style song.

First up - by the inventor of the bossa nova -  João Gilberto's classic version that introduced the song to the rest of the world when he was less than 30. The goose vocalized with the alto sax and the duck with João's guitar (except for a section they use a high-pitched muted horn).

O pato vinha cantando alegremente, quém, quém
Quando um marreco sorridente pediu
Pra entrar também no samba, no samba, no samba

O ganso gostou da dupla e fez também quém, quém
Olhou pro cisne e disse assim "vem, vem"
Que o quarteto ficará bem, muito bom, muito bem
Na beira da lagoa foram ensaiar
Para começar o tico-tico no fubá

(translation - Eden Atwood)
O pato
the duck was dancing by the water,
quack, quack, quack
the rhythm made him think he oughta
quack, quack
he was dancing to the samba,
the samba, the samba

Oh goose ooh
The goose was gaining passing by,
honk, honk, honk
he stopped and gave the dance a try,
honk, honk
he was dancing to the samba
a new thing, a new swing

By far, my favorite version is the muscular, yet smooth playing of Coleman Hawkins dueting with guitar and then playing off each other. Could listen to this forever. Can imagine a outdoor summer night scene, with the air thick, sweat glistening on the bodies of people dancing and the sound of the sax coming from somewhere in the near distance.

Like the previous, an instrumental version as well. While not the inventor, Getz popularized the bossa nova in the United States. Here, Byrd's bass forms the bedrock on which the Getz sax and the guitar play a bit faster, livelier version. Compared to the Hawkins' duck's 'quem, quem' softly as singing a lullaby, the Getz duck here is honking away, ready to party. The summer night in full swing - make no mistake.

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd

The case for and against Hyphens

As with most things in life when it comes to hyphens:
De gustibus non est disputandum, goes the saying: “there’s no arguing about taste.” Except that people argue endlessly about taste; a truer phrase is “there’s no way of proving your case in matters of taste.” De gustibus non est probandum.

The Economist weighs in on the correct use, abuse and toss-ups (tossups?) when it comes to hyphens.

You can write “we have zero tolerance for bad punctuation,” but when “zero tolerance” is used to modify a noun, it acts a bit like an adjective. It does not become an adjective, as many people think. But taken together, as a modifier, “zero-tolerance” functions like a single word; hence the hyphen.

Like most writing, careful reading and editing is what is needed along with the knowledge of a simple rule.

The Rule:
Fortunately, this is one rule that need not drive anyone mad: a group of words used as a single modifier should be hyphenated. or

The difference between a “third-world war” and a “third world war” is nothing to sniff at, and those selling a car might get rather more interest in the sale if they remember the hyphen in “a little-used car”.

On Sunlight - Tony Hoagland

A wonderful poem from Tony Hoagland, discovered re-stumbling on a past poetry haunt Wondering Minstrels that seems to be inactive for a while.

Great lines from Mr. Hoagland!

and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder
or a safe spare tire? 

The Word

 Down near the bottom
 of the crossed-out list
 of things you have to do today,

 between "green thread"
 and "broccoli" you find
 that you have penciled "sunlight."

 Resting on the page, the word
 is as beautiful, it touches you
 as if you had a friend

 and sunlight were a present
 he had sent you from some place distant
 as this morning -- to cheer you up,

 and to remind you that,
 among your duties, pleasure
 is a thing,

 that also needs accomplishing
 Do you remember?
 that time and light are kinds

 of love, and love
 is no less practical
 than a coffee grinder

 or a safe spare tire?
 Tomorrow you may be utterly
 without a clue

 but today you get a telegram,
 from the heart in exile
 proclaiming that the kingdom

 still exists,
 the king and queen alive,
 still speaking to their children,

 - to any one among them
 who can find the time,
 to sit out in the sun and listen.

-- Tony Hoagland

A Year of Reading

Still being in my younger and more impressionable years, I came to realization that I wasn't as well-read as I thought. For the past few years, partly inspired by Art Garfunkel, an unlikely bibliophile,  I have been keeping track of the books that I have read. In 2012, I read 53 books -  an average of about a book a week.  Sounds like a lot of reading. Yet, I did not like what I saw - quantity, but not quality. Too much non-fiction, and much of it pop non-fiction consisting of easy-breezy reads. Of all books that I read, only 15 books were what I consider must-read classics. While you may not always get it at first, the classics are classics for a reason. Yet, there is an argument for reading the canon, to remember advice from T.S. Eliot who said this about poems: "the only thing one needs to judge the merit of poems is to read other poems." 
To read better, one needs to read more books.

Where to begin? So, I turned to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's excellent "How to Read"; needless to say, 'a classic' itself. Their advice in a nutshell is to read books that expand your mind.  Books that are complex.  Such books change you as a person. They change the way you experience and perceive life. A book that does all that is a 'great' book. The classics are good examples of that. They are hard to read, because they make demands on the reader. Consequently, the rewards are much greater. 

So, in 2013  I tried to change this as consciously is I could.  I looked at lists - GuardianModern Library, including the intimidating Adler-Van Doren list.  But, you could really start anywhere, as long as you start. So based on availability and interest, I set off. 

To make no bones about my ambitions, I started with Ulysses and tried to read it in a day. I had begun and attempted to read it since I was about 18 and never made it past the first few pages. In Joycean vein - I "tightened my scrotum" and got to work trying to read the story of a day in a day. Technically in 24 hours, if not in one sitting. Though, according to Adler and Van Doren, you should try to read all books in one sitting. I surprised myself. It took a little over 12 hours to make it to the end. I thought earlier that I would be more ecstatic than Molly Bloom's final "yes".  Yet, surprisingly I was less concerned with being 'that-person-who-has-read-Ulysses-cover-to-cover' than being the person who had a great experience of reading Ulysses. I enjoyed the humor, the wordplay, the virtuosity, and simply the extraordinary story of an ordinary day in Dublin.  It was indeed the toughest read of the year. Intimidating for sure, but it is puzzling that the book isn't more read. Did I get it all? No. Was it worth it? Yes.

It has been a very, rich and rewarding experience. For a whole year, I was in the company of the greats - Joyce, Faulkner, Kafka, Woolf, Proust, Homer, Tolstoy, Flaubert. It made me aware of the considerable gifts of contemporary authors such as Barnes and Coetzee. The advantage of reading them so closely one after another made them stand out more in relief and despite stylistic differences the greatness of the writing always shines through. It wasn't fast reading. It was delightful, and as Harold Bloom says, "you don't read great books, they read you". Nothing could be truer. And again, it was much more than that. Often, I had to stop to take a breath to take in what I had just read. The profound psychological insight, the lovely turn of phrase, the ring of the perfectly metaphor, and above all the creation of an entire world from brief strokes.

My goal was to read better in 2013. So, did I succeed? Yes, if I was checking off a grocery list of items to be read. But, the funny thing is that books change you, they refine you. The process changed my definition of what 'reading better' was.  The chief one was what it meant to have 'read a book'. I wasn't sure any more. It certainly was not making a collection of feathers to stick in my cap. That was to miss the point, not to mention the waste of all that time.

Over the years, I have been somewhat proud that I never re-read books. I have a good memory. But, I have been again missing the point. A timely correction was provided by a certain V. Nabokov, who, by the prevailing academic wisdom at the time, was not allowed to lecture an American literature because he lacked a PhD, but allowed to lecture on European literature.  He writes in the 'Introduction' to the excellent and bizarrely hard-to-obtain Lectures on Literature that books can never be read, only re-read. Great books are a work of art and have to be approached in the manner of a painting. So, the first reading is only an initial glimpse. It's only in the second, or third reading that one can appreciate the full beauty. It's like the eye darting from aspect of the picture to another after we make our first glance at it. We have to look at it closely and from afar.

So, what's in store for 2014? Not to let go of the ambitious side of me, but one aim would be to finish Proust's In Search of Lost Time. To call it a goal makes it sound like getting through something unpleasant. If you take to it, Proust is very addicting. The Way by Swann's was so delicious and enjoyable that I cannot wait to get started on Vol II. There is no dearth of other classics that I wish to explore - Dostoevsky, Conrad, Beckett, Bellow, James, Ellison. The other would be to simply re-read some books. As Flaubert wrote: "What a scholar one might be if one knew well some half a dozen books."
Books from 2012-2013 to re-read:

Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Way by Swann's - Marcel Proust; Lydia Davis (trans)
A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Light in August - William Faulkner
Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges
Anna Karenina / Leo Tolstoy
Stories / Kafka
Lectures On Literature / Vladimir Nabokov
Madame Bovary / Gustave Flaubert
The Periodic Table / Primo Levi
The Odyssey / Homer; Richard Lattimore (trans)
Ulysses / James Joyce

The Story of Art / Ernst Gombrich
The Inferno / Dante Alighieri; John Ciardi (trans)
The Complete Poems / Philip Larkin; Archie Burnett (ed)
Half-Finished Heaven / Tomas Transtromer
Poor Economics : a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty / Banerjee, Abhijit V.
Thinking, Fast and Slow / Kahneman, Daniel

On Calvino

Post on Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler.

On Joseph Anton and Salman Rushdie

The lit blog has been update with a post that took longer and grew longer that expected. An extraordinary life.
Link: lit blog

'Ulysses - Story of a Day' In a Day?

Ulysses takes place over the course of one day - 16th June, in roughly 18 hours. It should be possible to read it in one day, right? One can read faster than people can walk, right?That's going to be my weekend project - does the math add up?

I have had the book since I was 16 and I have not made it past the first few pages after numerous attempts. It has, in one form or the another, been on my reading list, but always for 'next year'. I am sick of doing that. A nice week-long break is coming up and "why put off  for tomorrow what you can today? or do this year, instead of next year, right?" 

Any serious reader, or more correctly in my case, a reader pretending seriousness, cannot claim to be one if he/she has not tackled the eight-thousander Himalayan peaks of: 
  • Joyce's Ulysses,
  • Proust's In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance Of Things Past),
  • Tolstoy's War and Peace, or
  • Eliot's Middlemarch
The above are on any great reading list, and if not included, then the compiler has to justify why not. It must be said that I have read none of the above. Partly, because of their daunting length and difficulty, but mainly because of their fabled complexity and literary weight. There are many in the camp of the Ulysses 'also rans' - those who have wanted to read it, have made numerous attempts and have failed, or have given up.

Mortimer Adler in How To Read a Book writes that most people read books slower than they need to, and that reading too slowly can make you lose the forest for the trees. He writes that the first reading should be quick and "not to worry if you don't understand every word". Get the main idea. My idea in past years was to attack the text in a scholarly and leisurely fashion. Read the Odyssey, then other commentaries, consult the Linati and Gilbert schema, so that I can appreciate what I read. That did not get too far. 

Adler believes that books like Ulysses are 'above the heads of most readers' anyways. They are great because they demand a lot of the reader and you will never really understand it in one reading. They need to be read again and again, some parts faster than others. The book will grow with you. Though it will not be possible if you haven't read it even once. 

With that sage advice, I feel well-armed and the plan of reading it so quickly does not seem that hair-brained either.

Personal Rules for reading Ulysses in a Day

1) It has to be done in 24 hours. Not, necessarily in one calendar day, for practical, logistical reasons and so that I don't lose my mind as I wander around Dublin.
2) No reading commentaries, guides or keys such as the Stuart or Linati schema. That would slow things down and affect the pure, naked effect of the text. 
3) Fail as I may, it's still not Finnegan's Wake (Chabon on Finnegan's Wake) and progress has been made  THIS year.


Made it to the end last night (Jan 10) - all 783 pages from "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" to Molly Bloom's final  "... yes."
It took a total of 12 hours and 11 mins. Much less total time than I initially thought, but many more total days (There were other digressions, like reading other books). More on the book later. I am currently overwhelmed with the sheer mastery of Mr. Joyce. He is a real Colossus.


If Marilyn can do it, so can you!

Frozen credit

The AMEX card being thawed after being in the freezer for a month.  One may think that there was no need to do this, but it did help in the no-credit card month to have this in the deep-freezer to avoid any temptations. It was a bit of a pain to keep track of the cash spending, but after a while you get used to it. The   experiment was overall a success with the added 'mindfulness' of spending money. A useful exercise in showing that,  far from being rational, impulses take hold of us.

The card had a nice washed look after the thawing and was promptly put to use!

The poetry of equations: The 'Alice approach'

“And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
In No Small Matter, a book on the 'science on the nanoscale', famous chemist George Whitesides and photographer Felice Frankel achieve to convey the poetry and beauty of science with elegance and erudition. Their unique manner of presentation - saying much, by saying less - is more effective than most other books on science written for the lay audience. There is no surfeit of words, no clamour of explanations, and no riot of reasons.

Felice Frankel’s photos (or visualizations) show  bits - 1s and 0s - using wine glasses with red Shiraz, a prism on Venetian blinds, and a 'faked' quantum apple (to make the point that quantum mechanics confounds our ‘normal’ intuitions) and quantum dots, that are simultaneously beautiful art and beautiful science. George Whitesides’s prose is the 'second voice' in this lovely duet of images and words and strikes a wonderful balance between explaining and making us ponder.  He asks to reconsider what we take for granted - the magic of listening to music, for instance, is the ‘magic of transformation’. Using the LP track of Eleanor Rigby, Whitesides makes us rethink this amazing feat of alchemy. The the voices of the Beatles were recorded (copied) in the variations of grooves in vinyl, transmuted to electrical impulses by the needle, transduced by the vibrating speaker diaphragm into vibrations that are carried in the air, through our outer ear, and then via tiny bones and fluid in our inner ears back into sound, back into the emotion of Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people. With the well-crafted images and sparse sentences the book has the economy and power of poetry. Saying much, by saying little. 
 Curiosity is an itch, that understanding scratches
From the dawn of time, humans have had that itch and that need to scratch won’t ever go away. That’s what we humans do. Whitesides, for all his accomplishments, shows no trace of arrogance in what we now know; showing, that with greater understanding comes greater humility. For there is still lots we cannot explain. It’s not just arcane quantum or cosmological phenomena. We have the DNA code, but we don’t know how proteins ‘do what they do’ from messages in the code. As he writes, its like constructing the lives of people by looking at a telephone book. We don't understand how water molecules work in the cell.  Even the the everyday, plain and mundane confounds us. We don't understand cracks - how a crack actually ends. We don't understand bubble formation. We don’t understand colliding water jets.

Maybe someday we will get to a more complete explanation, or it may elude us, but the strange beauty of the water jets and the rest will continue to enchant us forever.
What really got me was the piece titled 'Duality': 
We're burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest - perhaps the greatest - of art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby's crib. We panic.
An equation can be thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it....
It's an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a  reality beyond the reach of words. 
He quotes De Broglie’s equation:
 λ = h / mv
In a compact and precise way it says, “A moving object is a wave”. That is poetry of the highest order, he says, and I agree. Even haikus seem long in comparison.

There no end to technological reductionism, but Whitesides urges us to write that love letter from Indiana in long hand. Science will only scratch that itch. It’s up to us to use our judgement as well. As we delve deeper there is more need of caution. As he admits, even in the case of equations, not all equations are alike and ann do not lead us to delight in their beauty, “Some are porcupines, some are plumber's helpers, and some are tarantulas.”

At the end of the book, scientist and non-scientist will have gained some understanding of science works. That is secondary. What is more important in my opinion, is that it shows how fascinating all this really is, and how we go about finding and exploring things that we cannot see, or hold, or smell. I call this the ‘Alice approach’ - create wonder. Draw attention to that itch, and the scratching will take care of itself. Drawing people into the beauty that nature is.

My issue with the polemics and arguments offered by science apologists is that they are written to appeal to the already convinced choir, who silently smile and cannot but nod in approval, but they do little to draw the ‘others’ in, and often achieve the opposite effect of turning them away. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was wonderfully written, but I cannot think it actually convinced anyone (barring a few fence-sitters) to actually change what they already believed in. It was divisive and that does not help. This is not the ‘Alice approach’.

Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, Why Politics and Religion Divide Good People, talks about ways to end the partisan politics of the Right vs. the Left, but this can be also applied elsewhere. In a twist of the Western adage - 'shoot first, questions later', his work as a moral psychologist has shown that ‘we are emotional first, and rational later' and when reason is brought into play it’s in support of the initial emotion. We make up reasoning post-hoc to bolster what ever was our initial emotional response. Reasoning and reflection can cause us to change our opinions but it is rare (We are less in this mode than we would like to believe). The approach to begin to gain any traction in an opponent’s mind is to use methods that ‘talk to their intuitions, and not to their reason’. Keep the reasons for later.

There is a similar problem in Science v. Faith/Religion debates. It’s not that the reasoning of the science boosters is not sound, but that the tone is wrong and reason alone is inadequate. You need to appeal to the intuitions that believers have. Richard Dawkins in his recent book, The Magic of Reality written for children and ‘curious’ adults, has tried really hard to create that ‘Alice approach’. It contains beautiful expositions of scientific experiments and phenomena with a preamble of folkloric and mythical explanations. It works, but only somewhat as they serve as ‘foil’ and straw-men to be knocked down later. What then remains of wonder when it really an argument, a quarrel in another guise? 

In a less intrusive way and with greater effectiveness, Whitesides/Frankel give us a tour of this Wonderland of the nanoscale and quantum phenomena that any one of any stripe cannot fail to be moved.

Alice would’ve  heartily approved.

Post on Mortality up

What could have been a result of fat fingers, a DVORAK-QWERTY key confusion: ironically, the post on Mortality died and had to be revived.

The post has risen Phoenix-like, a week past due.
On the lit blog:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Lit blog revival

Another attempt at reviving the lit blog that has been dormant for a long time. Reviewing Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis.

November is "No-Credit Card" month

I have a long-standing argument with J. about using credit cards or cash for local merchants. She pointed out to me that Espresso Royale has signs asking customers to pay in cash for small orders as they paid thousand of dollars in credit cards fees last year. Many places in Ann Arbor still don't accept American Express because of their higher fees compared to VISA or Mastercard.  The opposing view is that when businesses accept credit cards people tend to spend more, so what they may lose in fees, they gain in sales volume. So, my argument with J. has been that it's also necessary to know how much Espresso Royale's sales went up after they switched to credit cards. And who carries a fat wallet of cash anymore?

My reason for using credit cards has been less lofty - it's easier to keep accounts of what went where. The opposite reason of why you use cash not to have a 'paper trail'. The other advantage of using credit cards is that you are not spending your money, but rather the bank's money and in case of fraud or wrong charges, you are safe as long as you complain within 30 days. I have used this to get wrong charges taken off (somehow the fraudsters are always magazine subscriptions departments).

On the flip side, it has been shown that people who use credit cards tend to spend more being more indifferent to pricing. Different areas of the brain light up when you have to dish out cash, as opposed to paying for it in the future using a credit card. The mind also automatically discounts costs that are far away in the future as opposed to immediate enjoyments. I happen to be in the 'dead beat' category - people who pay their credit cards on time, who don't overspend  and are almost never late. Though even the most on top-of-the-game person, as the credit card industry has shown, will also miss on a few payments, or be late and tends to be charged about $30-45 dollars (my recollection of an NPR story) a year in fees/fines.

Then there are my German friends who refuse to use credit cards in general,because they did not want the government to know how they were spending their money.  Big Brother is surely watching and the credit card companies certainly track every single expense. In fact, AMEX makes no real bones of the fact - they provide you summaries of what you spent in the whole year and MINT (not a credit card company, but an aggregator of the information) offers comparisons to what amounts others spent. They don't wholly make clear, or obfuscate how this data is shared and/or sold to interested parties. (Note to self: turn up privacy settings to maximum for credit cards and Mint). 

So, November has been decided as  "Credit-Card Free Month" to empirically find answers to the following:

  • Is it possible to actually live in today's world without a credit card?
  • Does it make it easier to save? by way of making us more conscious of spending ?
  • ... or just by spending less to begin with.

Based on my analysis of past purchases on the credit card the things that I will have to give up for  the next month will be:

  • Amazon purchases
  • Groupon or Living Social purchases
  • Online purchases of any sort - REI, Adorama, etc.

Having to not use a credit card means that we will be forced to shop locally and we will have to use the long-lost art of writing checks at the grocery store.